John Grogan - The Longest Trip Home


A Memorable Opening Line

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Recently my hometown newspaper, The Morning Call of Allentown, asked me about my reading habits for a new feature the paper is kicking off. The reporter wanted to know what book I had just finished ("The Hour I First Believed" by Wally Lamb), what I was currently reading ("Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" by Barbara Kingsolver), my all-time favorite book ("Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger), the book that first got me hooked on reading ("Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson in fourth grade), and when I do most of my reading (on airplanes and in bed before turning off the light for the night). But one question stumped me: "What is the most memorable opening line from a book?" I thought and I thought and couldn't quite come up with anything. I went to my bookshelves and pulled down old favorites... Hemingway, John Irving, Frank McCourt, Steinbeck, even Chaucer. Nothing was grabbing me. I thought about some of the classic opening lines of literature, such as "Call me Ishmael" in Melville's Moby Dick. But I couldn't really list that with a straight face because, truth be told, that opening line was just about as far into the notoriously dense novel as I got when it was assigned to me in high school.

Flash forward to a recent weekend in San Francisco. I was in town to give a talk at a fundraiser event to benefit The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Koret School of Veterinary Medicine. I arrived the night before, which gave me most of Saturday to wander around San Francisco, my favorite city in all North America (closely followed by Montreal). The weather was cool and rainy (big surprise), but I wasn't going to let that hold me hostage in my hotel room. I wandered around Union Square, up Geary Street, through the Financial District, into China Town, and beyond that to the corner of Columbus and Broadway where I rediscovered one of the country's great -- and one of my favorite -- bookstores, City Lights. A great place to while away a rain-soaked afternoon. I shook off my raincoat, folded my umbrella and headed inside. On the second floor I found an entire wall dedicated to the Beat Generation writers. That only made sense. City Lights, founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the spiritual home of the Beat movement.

The first cover my eyes fell upon was Howl, the controversial 1956 book-length poem by Allen Ginsburg. I had read an excerpt for a poetry survey class in college and remembered it being provocative. I pulled it off the shelf, grabbed a rocking chair, and started to read. I recognized the opening lines right away and remembered how they had swept over me, the crazy, inexplicable power of those raw words, when I first read them thirty years ago. I guess that constitutes memorable.

Howl opens:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

So there you have it. An opening line worth remembering, even if it required a cross-country flight and a trudge through the rain-slick streets of San Francisco for me to find it again.

posted by John Grogan at 9:08 PM


Blogger sgriff7 said...

Yesterday I had the opportunity to finally watch Marley & Me. I realize that Hollywood adds to and takes away as they see fit, but I think they captured the spirit of your dog and family. We lost our yellow lab about a month ago and I do not mean that he ran away. He was 13, also. He suffered from multiple health problems and had lost his hearing. It was one of the hardest days of our lives. We adopted him when he was 5 from a shelter. We were told he was a former drug-dog. He was very timid and shy. He had the sweetest temperment and we miss him very much. He was scared of thunderstorms and football games! He was a part of our family. At first I cursed myself for watching the movie. I must've cried a gallon of tears. Then I realized that it was the healthy thing to do. I have had guilt issues about whether or not we did everything we could to help him. Watching the movie made me feel as though we did. Thank you for a wonderful story and for the indirect therapy you provided to me and my husband. Thankfully we have a black lab mix that we have owned since puppyhood. She is almost 10 and is our heart, also. She is healthy and energetic and has been given an ultimatum to live longer than us!

10:37 AM  
Blogger thais said...

Boa tarde, estou escrevendo pois seu livro é muito bom, na verdade é como se você e e sua esposa fossem eu e meu marido. a maneira como nos comportamos, as decisões sobre filhos, quando me explico a ele que minhas renuncias para criar nossos filhos são difíceis e eu só queria dizer, e o Marley, que para nós, é nossa amada filhinha Thalita, branquinha de cabelos dourados, e de uma fome insaciável, ela come tudo o que vê pela frente, come mosquito, parede, terra, e neste momento esta comento sua boneca de pano, aliás nem sei como cabe em sua boca, mas esta lá, e ela tem apenas 01 ano e 03 meses de vida.
Estou grávida e meu marido e eu combinanmos de não ter mais filhos, quando lemos o livro e depois o filme ficamos com medo de vir um terceiro filho, se vier vamos rir muito.
Obrigada por nos contar sua história.
Thais sales araujo- São Paulo/Brasil

1:42 PM  
Blogger Tina said...

Good one. I've read alot of books and can't recall an opening line either ... :> don't think I'll be able to make a trip cross country to remember ... :> But it's cool how you found it. Everything is a meant to be thing.


5:56 PM  
Blogger Mary J said...

Dear John: Just finished both your books in audio version. As much as I loved Marley & Me [cried my eyes out at the edn], I was so moved by The Longest Trip Home. I am also a 'recovering catholic' and related so much to your childhood. I kept saying to myself 'o that's soooo true'...I laughed and cried. I also enjoyed hearing the story in your own voice. You are a wonderful author...please write more. Mary

5:59 AM  
Blogger Little Raven-Hawk said...

I just finished Marley & Me tonight, and it was wonderful. It has spent the better part of 2 years sitting on the shelf because I was trying to put off reading it, knowing I was just going to cry my eyes out at the end. But I decided, after seeing the movie last fall, I would give it a try, only to put it down again after crying in the first chapter. My father is much like yours when it comes to animals. I have only seen him cry three times in my life. When he told me he and mom were separating, after spending a night in jail realizing he was an alcoholic, and, when our Australian Shephards died. Okay, 4 times. But, I eventually got the heart to finish it finally over the last month, laughing my head off in my room, or trying desperatly to hide my silent laughter in the middle of my class, and crying my eyes out the last 20 or 30 pages. Even years after I have lost some of my animals, I still tear up remembering them. And to this day, have a picture of every one, 5 in total, over my bed. Although I have never owned a dog quite like Marley, I did have a cat who I swear thought he was a dog like Marley...LOL. And still to this day miss his presence at the foot of my bed every night.

Thank you for having the courage to write yours, and his story down. Even though I'm an aspiring writer myself, my life with my furry companions is a story that I'm not sure I would be able to put down. So, thank you.

2:51 AM  
Blogger deborah said...

I can safely say that alot of interesting authors leave interesting comments or excerpts as a pre-opening to a book-My favorite author D.H.Lawrence, who wrote Women in Love, and a consequent movie from the book is without question gifted with the character of sorts, the real feel to the being, a very difficult accomplishment. John Jakes, Heaven and Hell gives us a glimpse with "the loss of heaven is the greatest pain in hell"-a few short words that say the unimaginable-I realize that we are all in a modern day dilemna, and readership is different because of time factors-no longer do we have parlor games, but we do have human emotion that doats and pines for answers-its the only way to reach the soul-just like music

9:51 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

How about: "My wound is geography?"

4:15 PM  

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